CMO profile: How this spirits marketing chief is blending classic and contemporary to deliver brilliant brand basics

William Grant and Sons marketing director, Jonathan Sully, details the marketing strategy helping him find long-term growth

Jonathan Sully
Jonathan Sully

Blending classic with contemporary to build brand salience and mental availability for long-term growth is the strategy experienced marketing leader, Jonathan Sully, is bringing to the task at William Grant and Sons.

Sully joined the family-owned premium spirits company just under a year ago as marketing director for Australia and New Zealand, overseeing a portfolio of iconic brands such as Glenfiddich, Hendrick’s Gin, Monkey Shoulders, The Balvenie, Grant’s and Drambuie. He comes with nearly 30 years’ experience in marketing across the drinks, entertainment and toy categories, working for businesses such as Diageo, Hasbro, WWE, Fox Sports, The Walt Disney Company and Bacardi.

As Sully tells CMO, his “quite classical marketing remit” at William Grant and Sons is about delivering long-term, profitable brand growth aligned to its ‘Triple Win’ approach – to win for consumers, customers and the business.

“This is a family-owned business that’s been around 135 years, so the game we play is a long game,” Sully says. “Any company that puts down whisky for 20 years from now makes you really understand the long-term play.

“What I’m trying to do is be relentless in our pursuit of insight-based strategy with excellence in execution. Execution is everything at the moment, and I’m the exponent of that.”  

Delivering profitable growth in the long term aligned with the long vision of the business nevertheless requires being contemporary and quick at the coalface of execution, Sully says.

“The brands we have – Glenfiddich, Hendrick’s, Grants – won’t disappear. We will not over-innovate or outpace the market. We’ll make sure those brands have a legacy for the next 140 years,” he says.   “I’m trying to marry the old master thinking with contemporary. I don’t think we have achieved that yet but marrying brilliant brand basics with a contemporary edge is what we are looking to do.”

Greasing the right gears

According to Sully, the William Grant and Sons marketing function he came into was “a well-engineered machine”. He’s now in the process of “adding the oil to try and project a bit more pace into growth”.

“Whenever you change a marketing head, you get a new perspective. It doesn’t mean the previous perspective or incumbents were in any way wrong. Colin Rochester [managing director] also leads this business in a very consistent, informed manner,” Sully comments. “For me, it was taking up the reins, seeing how the engine worked, then looking at which bits we could oil.”

Prioritisation has been the constant theme across Sully’s career. Whether it was Hasbro, Disney or the drinks sector, he says his focus has been on prioritising resources to get return on investment in the right places.

And with such huge tentpoles in whisky and gin, it’s easy to guess where the oil went at William Grant and Sons machine. Sully notes one of the big opportunities post-Covid conditions present the business is the trend of premiumisation. This has resulted in consumers trading up through off-trade consumption at home and what he calls ‘micro-treat occasions’. Glenfiddich and The Balvenie have been key beneficiary brands of this.

“That means thinking about how we can get a blended whisky buyer to buy up into Glenfiddich 12, 15 or 18. That spans $70 - $170, which is still an approachable price. And if they’re doing it at home, how do we help them do that further,” Sully says.  

Overall, consumers’ spirit repertoires have expanded post-Covid to an average of nine brands across all categories. Cocktail culture has also accelerated through Covid with at-home mixologists experimenting across categories. What’s more, consumers have fully embraced ecommerce for premium purchasing.

“It's also about looking at the broader portfolio,” Sully says. “When you have broad church such as Glenfiddich, you have to think about all the levers you’re pulling. There’s volume in some younger age whiskies, but massive opportunity from that micro treat mentality and special occasion opportunity to bring in some of other premium brands. You’re not just trading up from a younger malt whiskey into a 23 – you’re taking from champagne and someone who may have thought they’d spend $400 for a meal.

“Instead of the meal out, [lockdown] could have been a fantastic opportunity – and we saw this in our sales – to buy Grand Cru at $400 instead. So we have tried to ensure salience, relevance to occasion, and opportunity to purchase, particularly from at-home channels, has been there for our brands.”

This micro-treat occasion mentality applies to Hendrick’s too, and William Grants has followed suit by extending into new premiumised offerings, stretching price points from $70 to $90.

“People have been open to trying different type of gins. Well, Hendrick’s can present that with Neptunia and Luna as well as the original version,” Sully says.

In a post-Covid world, Sully’s plan is about ensuring mental availability as well as physical accessibility through distribution. The team is leveraging a host of distinctive brand assets across its key brands and engaging in a raft of experiential activations to achieve this.

“The at-home consumer is starting to love our brands, but if they’re buying them from the off trade, we needed to look at how we can introduce them to ways of drinking whisky and creating occasions in another manner. So we got out there with activations,” Sully says.

One example is the Hendrick’s Gin Cucumber Airstream caravan, delivering Hendrick’s and cucumber drinks to consumers at multiple festivals. There’s also the Glenfiddich ‘Whisky Wanderer’ double decker bus, a 50-year-old Leyland British bus doing the same kind of brand job.

For us, it was about capitalising on the opportunity to get into market where marketers in many categories were slow to re-enter quite frankly. We have gained excessive share of voice in that classic capacity and built salience ahead of a lot of our competition as a result.

Jonathan Sully

Other recent campaigns include Hendrick’s ‘Gin Cucumber Concierge’ and its latest job offer for a Cucumber Concierge Officer (aka brand ambassador), Monkey Shoulder’s World Cocktail Day activity and Hendrick’s and Glenfiddich’s involvement in Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW).

“We support this activation through classic, heavy lifting advertising,” Sully says. “For us, it was about capitalising on the opportunity to get into market where marketers in many categories were slow to re-enter quite frankly. We have gained excessive share of voice in that classic capacity and built salience ahead of a lot of our competition as a result. Being on the ground with a disciplined approach to driving awareness ahead of sales and building salience have been the immediate priorities.”

Such consistency in awareness driving above-the-line advertising, integrated with trial at scale through agile activations driving conversion at retail, has ensured William Grant and Sons has delivered one of the best years on record for brand growth, customer satisfaction and consumer engagement, Sully adds.

Creative and integrated brand collaboration

Creative collaborations further leverage distinctive brand assets. As part of its brand presence at AAFW 2022, Glenfiddich teamed up with Australian multidisciplinary artist, Jordan Gogos of Jordans Spyridon Gogos, on a one-of-a-kind digital piece of art gifted to attendees as an NFT. It came off the back a broader and longstanding program of work by Glenfiddich to pursue creative partnerships with artists. In this case, Glenfiddich had formed a partnership with Melbourne-based sneaker designer, Chase Shiel, to produce five physical custom sneakers specifically for Gogos’ runway show.

“Collaboration is nothing if it’s not amplified – it’s just a creative exercise. What Ross [Blainey, creative collaboration lead] was able to do with Chase Shiel and the sneakers designed with Glenfiddich in mind garnered coverage way beyond our targeted footprint,” Sully says. “What you want to do is engage with the creative community to be integrated in your thinking and creative style.

“It’s like what Nicol & Ford did with Hendrick’s through the cucumber clutch. We have an amazingly distinctive drink in Hendrick’s and cucumber. So we’re participating in the fashion show, we want the cucumber in there. Vogue got hold of this clutch, it went to Paris and travelled the world. We shone beyond branding and badging by integrating and letting creative minds run free. We had two designers come out with a genius cucumber clutch that was also fun and playful. This was amplified to a smaller community then on a global stage and via a platform like fashion.

“For me, it’s realising those opportunities and challenging the team to say I want to see the brand benefit here, but I also want to embrace what we are integrating into.”

Another example Sully points to of addressing contemporary culture is the expanding Glenfiddich portfolio. This has helped it retain a broad church of potential consumers while holding onto its existing customer base – vital to any luxury brand’s success.

“We launched Grande Couronne, our 26-year-old single malt whisky [priced at $800], at Fashion Week. That was a good example of going to the top 10 per cent of our church, preaching to them then making sure that went out to the congregation,” Sully says.  

“Through all of this is the theme of how to marry the classic and contemporary. Marrying classic whisky with contemporary fashion design, or putting the bus down at The Rocks, or launching Neptunia gin from Hendrick’s at the Vivid Festival – demonstrates the longevity of our business and classic nature of how the brands can remain contemporary.”

Today, 20 per cent of whisky category drinkers are 25-34-year-olds, which also happens to be the biggest growth segment for Glenfiddich.

“For 30 years, whisky has been the biggest category in this country. The fact we can maintain a contemporary edge, and it feels like technology is something we can base – even back in Scotland it’s a forward approach to whisky production – is something I’m obsessed with. That’s exciting as it’s a huge category of consumers flowing into our brands,” he says.  

When it comes to gin, meanwhile, Sully sees quality rising to the top as an inevitable rationalisation in range occurs.

“The job is to invest in your brands, the consumer and make sure you still retain a place in the repertoire,” he says. “On conservative averages, consumers drink seven gin brands. We have to be in there and be the premium mark people will go to. We can learn from the excellence of local gins and we recognise what they do well. But what we do better is we globalise our distinctive brand and invest in the consumer.”

With occasions often overlapping and intersecting, Sully’s ongoing quest is to understand consumer motivations and occasions.

“For example, Hendrick’s performs incredibly well in refreshment because of its distinctive serve. And gin often represents first drink of the night. We find a firm place to capitalise on that position,” he says. “While we have new product offering in these ranges, we still have a broad portfolio that’s untapped, and we need to exploit more of what we have got.”  

Success criteria for CMOs of the future

On Sully’s list of critical criteria for modern marketing leaders is to be students of past successes – either their own or others. It’s then about codifying these drivers of growth.

As a believer in the 4Ps of marketing, Sully also advocates brilliant brand basics and a keen eye on executive efficiency and effectiveness.

“It’s about understanding the holistic 4Ps versus just promotion or advertising, and the role of price in net revenue management as well as being able to collaborate with commercial teams to drive meaningful distribution,” he says.

An “incurably questioning attitude” to understanding consumer behaviour and ability to blend the science of marketing effectiveness with creative execution are extra pre-requisites.

“And be an ally in the boardroom to the CEO and CFO,” Sully concludes. “The great business leaders are recognising brands are growth engines versus balance sheet inventory – the great CMOs unlock this value and drive equity creation.”

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